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Afghan Report: April 19, 2005

19 April 2005, Volume 4, Number 13
By Ron Synovitz

The Afghan government wants to restore a war-damaged former royal palace so it can be used as the east of the new parliament. The Darulaman Palace was built in the 1920s by former King Amanullah Khan as part of his plan for social and political modernization of his country. It originally was intended to house Afghanistan' s first elected parliament. But before that legislature could be created, King Amanullah was forced into exile by conservative elements who opposed his reforms.

The bombed-out ruins of the Darulaman Palace tower over the landscape to the south of Kabul. Sitting on a hilltop with its pockmarked portico balconies and Corinthian columns, it is a postcard image that has come to symbolize the destruction of Kabul during the civil wars of the 1990s.

Long before it was gutted in the early 1990s, the Darulaman Palace had been a symbol of a different kind.

When it was designed in the 1920s by German architects, the structure was meant to symbolize King Amanullah Khan's plans for democratic modernization -- plans that ultimately failed when Islamic conservatives led a series of uprisings against him in late 1928 and he fled to Europe.

Economy Minister Mohammad Amin Farhang said the Afghan government wants to restore the three-story building to its classical European grandeur so that after more than 75 years, it finally can be used for its original intended purpose.

"The Afghan government has decided that Darulaman Palace should be prepared for the Afghan parliament because, during the time of Amanullah Khan, the building was built for democracy," Farhang said. "And now, this palace should be used for democracy."

Many Afghans today are unaware of Darulaman Palace's significance as a symbol of modern democratic aspirations.

The country's first written constitution was promulgated by Amanullah Khan in 1923. It guaranteed personal freedom and equal rights of all Afghans. It also called for provincial councils to be created across Afghanistan with half of all members winning their seats through elections.

In his drive for modernization, Amanullah Khan established diplomatic and economic relations with major European and Asian states. He founded schools where classes were taught in French, German and English. And he built a new town to the south of Kabul -- named Darulaman, or "Abode of Peace" -- as Afghanistan's new administrative center.

Construction of his monumental Darulaman Palace for a future parliament was just part of the project. A structure for Kabul's municipal administration also was built nearby. A narrow-gauged railroad led to the center of Kabul about 10 kilometers away. Smaller government buildings and residential villas also were built for members of a newly established judiciary and for high-level government officials.

But the high cost of modernization -- and the king's efforts to reduce the power of Islamic clerics -- caused resentment among conservative Islamists and Pashtun tribal leaders.

The reformer king faced a series of tribal uprisings after he introduced reforms in the summer of 1928 that allowed women to be seen in public without head scarves or the all-encompassing burqa. At the beginning of 1929, just six months after announcing those reforms, Amanullah Khan was forced to renounce the throne and flee across the border into British Colonial India and eventually to Italy.

With Amanullah Khan's downfall, Darulaman ceased being the Afghan capital. The municipal building eventually was converted into the Kabul Museum, whose ancient collections were looted in the early 1990s by militia factions and vandalized in the late 1990s by the Taliban regime.

Darulaman Palace was first gutted by fire in 1969. It was restored to house the Defense Ministry during the 1970s and 1980s. But it was destroyed again as rival mujahedin factions fought for control of Kabul during the early 1990s.

Today, parts of Darulaman Palace are used by NATO troops as an observation post.

Afghan officials say laws on the protection of Afghanistan's national heritage make it their duty to protect the historical identity of Darulaman Palace. They also say that moving the parliament to Darulaman -- which is now a district of the capital -- will help alleviate chronic traffic jams in the city center. But they say funds for the reconstruction must come from private donors rather than the cash-strapped state budget.

Abdul Hamid Faruqi, an Afghan architect who lives in Germany and is a member of the Darulaman Reconstruction Foundation, has drawn up plans for the reconstruction project that have been endorsed by President Hamid Karzai's government.

"The first phase focuses only on reconstruction improvements that stabilize the existing structure and its historical facade [so that it doesn't deteriorate further]," Faruqi said. "The cost for this phase is about $7 million. The second phase is reconstruction of the entire building with all of its technical equipment to prepare it for use by legislators. That costs about $18 million."

Faruqi said that once enough private donations are collected for work to begin, it will take about 10 years before lawmakers can start using the restored building.

He noted that a third phase of the project still needs to be approved by the government. With a $60 million to $70 million price tag, it includes landscaping on the hill around the Darulaman Palace as well as the installation of a modern plumbing network in the area and an underground tunnel system for use by lawmakers and their staff.

The first post-Taliban parliament is due to be elected in September. A construction team from India is working on a building to house the legislature until reconstruction of the Darulaman Palace can be completed.

(Hamida Osman, a Kabul correspondent with RFE/RL's Afghan Service, contributed to this report)

In an extensive interview with thw Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) on 8 April, Mullah Abdul Hayy Motma'en, describing himself as "a senior official" in charge of cultural activities, claimed that the neo-Taliban will not hold talks with the Afghan administration as long as the United States has its forces in Afghanistan.

If the United States wants to hold discussions with the neo-Taliban, it should "declare when" its forces are going to leave Afghanistan, otherwise "it is impossible to hold talks with" the United States. Motma'en also told AIP that "according to reports," Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah is "signing an agreement" that would allow the United States to maintain military bases in Afghanistan for 50 years. Motma'en said, "God forbid, if this happens," adding that such an agreement "will be very dangerous because many governments and systems will be changed in 50 years."

Claming that the aim of the neo-Taliban is not to "rule Afghanistan against the will of the people," Motma'en said that their aim was to "expel the foreign forces and achieve independence."

Asked whether a Taliban-led government would accept the current border between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- known as the Durand Line -- Motma'en responded: "This is a very sensitive issue. I cannot comment any further on this."

Speaking earlier about the possibility of the United States establishing military bases in Afghanistan, Motma'en had compared it with the Durand Line which, he said, "remains unresolved" because it was signed by an Afghan ruler in 1893.

While the Durand Line is the de facto and internationally recognized border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, no Afghan government has ever officially accepted this border, including the Taliban regime despite the fact it was backed militarily and politically by Islamabad (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 7 August 2003).

Meanwhile Mufti Latifullah Hakimi, speaking on behalf of the neo-Taliban on 9 April, claimed responsibility for killing the head of the Agriculture Department of Zabul Province, AIP reported.

The official, identified as Sarajuddin, was kidnapped on 6 April. Referring to Sarajuddin, Hakimi told AIP that he "was an official of the American administration. We will kill anyone who works for the American administration."

For the neo-Taliban "American administration" refers to the government of President Hamid Karzai. Activities by the neo-Taliban have risen considerably in southern Afghanistan recently (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 4 April 2005).

In another news U.S. air strikes killed 12 suspected neo-Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan, AFP reported on 11 April. Fighting erupted in Paktiya Province 11 April, with U.S. helicopter gunships and jets firing on suspected insurgent positions in retaliation for an apparent neo-Taliban assassination attempt on a former Afghan military official. General Khial Baz, the former military chief of neighboring Khost Province, escaped that attack without injury. "Afghan forces chased the attackers in the mountains and the fighting began. It lasted until late afternoon," said Paktiya commander Ghulam Nabi Salem. U.S.-led military air support was then requested, Salem said. Afghan forces subsequently found the bodies of 12 suspected insurgents, Salem said. "We recovered the bodies of 12 Taliban in Shiwak's mountains," Salem said.

Neo-Taliban spokesman Hakimi told AIR that the rebel force lost "only one fighter."

In addition Afghan authorities arrested nine suspected neo-Taliban insurgents in the Kandahar area, AFP reported 13 April. "Nine Taliban armed with AK-47s and explosives were arrested in a search operation by national army soldiers in Kandahar -- three on [12 April] and six on [11 April]," Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammed Zaher Azimi said. The group of three was captured in Kandahar's Shawali Kot district, roughly 430 kilometers south of Kabul. The first six arrests were made on the outskirts of Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold before that regime was swept from power in 2001.

U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld arrived in Kandahar early on 13 April as part of his brief visit to the country.

Meanwhile the U.S. military said an explosion last month that killed four American soldiers was an accidental detonation of an old antitank mine and not a guerrilla attack, AP reported 14 April.

Neo-Taliban forces initially claimed responsibility for the blast when it occurred on 22 March outside Kabul. The explosion ripped through a U.S. military vehicle scouting in the area. "There are no indications that the mine was deliberately set for or designed to target the soldiers," the military said in a statement, saying an official investigation had ruled the incident a mishap. The statement added that explosives experts believed the mine "was likely left from previous wars and may have shifted during the recent rains." (Amin Tarzi and Marc Ricks)

Afghan police on 11 April arrested three suspects thought to be behind a botched kidnapping plot against an American in Kabul, AFP reported the next day. Police arrested the suspects near the location where attackers forced a young American into a car on 10 April, said Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal. "Police arrested three men armed with AK-47s, hand grenades, pistols, and fake license plates in a Toyota four-wheel drive vehicle as they were preparing for another kidnapping attack on [11 April]," Mashal said. Two of the men arrested wore military fatigues, while the third wore street clothes. "They have not confessed, but we think they were behind the [10 April] kidnapping attempt," Mashal said. The American escaped his abductors, who stuffed him into the back of the vehicle, by forcing open the hatch of the moving car and calling for help. "The abduction of a U.S. citizen in Kabul on 10 April demonstrates the potential remains great for attacks against U.S. citizens," the American consul in Kabul, Russel Brown, wrote in an open letter after the incident.

Attacks on civilians have not been limited to Americans. Gunmen shot a British development worker as he drove through downtown Kabul last month. Kidnappers abducted three UN workers from Kabul in October but released them one month later. (Marc Ricks)

Afghan opium growers vowed to protect their poppy crops from an ongoing eradication campaign, AP reported on 14 April. "We have decided we won't let them eradicate our poppies," said Attaullah, a poppy farmer from the Kandahar area. "That's our collective and final decision. We have nothing else to lose." A group of six tribal leaders from the Kandahar area met with regional governor Gol Agha Sherzai to discuss the government crackdown in the area. Earlier this week, government forces moved to destroy poppy fields west of Kandahar but were turned back by an angry mob.

Afghan officials say the eradication campaign, which is backed by U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, will continue despite resistance from poppy growers who rely on their crops for income. "If they destroy my poppies, I will throw my children into the river," said Sardar Mohammed, a poppy farmer in the Kandahar area. "If they bring the tractors, I will lie down in front of them. They will have to kill me to get into my field."

Afghan authorities vowed to continue their counternarcotics campaign despite recent clashes between police and opium producers in southern Afghanistan, AP reported on 13 April.

Deputy Interior Minister General Mohammed Daud said antidrug operations will resume in the area after a brief halt following a clash near Kandahar that left seven people injured. "It will start again tomorrow," Mohammad Daud said on 13 April. "We are going to carry this out all over the country, not just in this district or province."

U.S.-trained counternarcotics forces were in the Kandahar area to eradicate opium-poppy crops when they came under fire by villagers apparently tied to the local drug trade. Afghan authorities halted operations briefly to consult with local elders before deciding to resume efforts in the area. Afghan authorities targeted the area because its warm weather allows early harvesting.

Opium farmers and counternarcotics forces traded gunfire outside Kandahar in a gun battle that left one dead and seven injured, AP reported 12 April. Fighting erupted when hundreds of protesters torched cars and blocked a main road as Afghan counternarcotics authorities entered the area as part of an ongoing drug crackdown. "The poppy-eradication team came under fire from several directions," said deputy police chief Salim Khan. "They fired, and six people were injured and one killed. One of the team was also injured." Khan said the authorities have halted their operation and launched talks with protest leaders General Mohammed Daud said the operation in Kandahar Province was the first of its kind this year. It remained unclear whether Afghan authorities would continue their raids in the area, a former Taliban stronghold. Mohammad Daud said more counternarcotics operations are planned in the western Farah Province.

In a related story, a spokesman for the Tajik National Drug Control Agency said on 13 April that as many as 50 laboratories on the Afghan side of the countries' shared border operate around the clock to process heroin, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. Tajik authorities expect drug trafficking from Afghanistan into Tajikistan to increase as warmer weather opens mountain passes and poppy farmers harvest spring crops. "Areas of drug crops are continuing to increase in Afghanistan," Yuldashev said. "That is a main producer of this poison." (Marc Ricks)

A coalition of opposition political parties in Afghanistan has challenged the credibility of the UN-backed Joint Electoral Management Body, the "Kabul Times" reported on 14 April. "The opposition alliance, National Understanding Front, insists that the election commission should be formed in consultation with opposition parties, otherwise the commission's reliability can be questioned," said Front spokesman Sayyed Mohammad Ali Jawed (see �RFE/RL Afghanistan Report,� 11 April 2005). The National Understanding Front is a coalition of 12 parties launched two weeks ago. Its leader is Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, the former education minister and chief rival of President Hamid Karzai for the presidency. The group has called on the United Nations to ensure the transparency during parliamentary elections slated for this fall. Critics of the group accuse some of its members, including Qanuni, of being involved in human rights violations during Afghanistan's past conflicts. (Marc Ricks)

Afghanistan's top election official said Afghan refugees living in neighboring Iran and Pakistan will have no chance to vote in the upcoming Afghan parliamentary elections, Iranian state radio reported on 11 April. In an interview with Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the chairman of Afghanistan's Independent Electoral Commission said registration difficulties put the Afghan refugee populations in Iran and Pakistan out of reach. "Unfortunately, due to logistical and technical problems, the elections will not be held for the refugees in Iran and Pakistan," said commission chief Besmellah Besmel.

Slated for this fall, the parliamentary elections could draw as many as 10,000 candidates, Besmel said. "We expect around 10,000 candidates to register for the parliamentary elections," Besmel said. "We are sure that the people will participate in the parliamentary elections as broadly as they did in the presidential elections." Besmel added that the commission needs census figures from the government to move the registration process forward in Afghanistan. "According to the electoral law, the government has to provide estimate or precise figures on population in each district of the country," Besmel said. "So far, the Independent Electoral Commission has not received any census figures. We are waiting for the figures so that we can take the process further." (Marc Ricks)

President Karzai said after a meeting on 13 April with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that his country wants a long-term security arrangement with the United States, AP reported on 13 April. At a news conference in Kabul, Karzai said Afghanistan sees itself tied to the United States for the indefinite future. "The conclusion we have drawn is that the Afghan people want a long-term relationship with the United States," Karzai said. "They want this relationship to be a sustained economic and political relationship and, most importantly of all, a strategic security relationship to enable Afghanistan to defend itself, to continue to prosper." It remained unclear whether Karzai or U.S. officials would consider permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan. "We think more in terms of what we're doing rather than the question of military bases and that type of thing," Rumsfeld said. (Marc Ricks)

The U.S. military has announced plans to build a bridge over the Oxus River to link Afghanistan with Tajikistan, Xinhua News Agency reported on 11 April. John O'Dowd, the head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the bridge will promote trade and mutual integration, and enhance long-term security. "This bridge will serve as a vital link connecting the Central Asian region with outside markets," O'Dowd told reporters in Kabul. Italian firm Rizzani de Eccher won the $28 million contract in March, O'Dowd added. (Marc Ricks)

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) announced plans for a $50 million aid package to Afghanistan aimed at improving power supplies in rural areas, AFP reported on 14 April. The aid package will include a $26.6 million soft loan to build a transmission network and $23.5 million grant for the construction and repair of power-distribution systems, the ADB said. Slated for completion in June 2008, the project will bring affordable power supplies to 1.2 million people, the bank said in announcing the initiative. Currently, just 9 percent of the population in Afghanistan has access to electricity, according to the bank. (Marc Ricks)

The Afghan Finance Ministry has announced that it will impose an income tax on the earnings of government and private-sector employees, Tolu Television reported on 9 April. According to the proposal, anyone earning more that 12,000 afghanis (approximately $250) per month will be taxed at a rate of 10 percent. The policy is to go into effect at the start of the Afghan-calendar month of Hamal, which began on 20 March. According to the report, a number of local merchants and economic analysts have expressed their disagreement with the new plan.

Since the Soviet invasion and the subsequent civil wars, Afghans have not been taxed and have became accustomed to not paying taxes. If the Karzai administration can impose taxation on its citizens, it would not only earn much-needed funds from domestic sources, but would help bind the citizens to their state and country. (Amin Tarzi)

An Afghan court ordered jail time for two deputy ministers and six other senior officials convicted of corruption, dpa reported on 12 April. Deputy Hajj Ministers Ata al-Rahman Salim and Sayyed Ahmad Jamal Mubari were convicted on graft charges and face both prison sentences and fines, an official for the Afghan Supreme Court said. "Both deputy ministers have been sentenced to three years in jail, and each has been [ordered] to pay 13 million Afghani ($265,000)," the court official said. Four other officials were sentenced to two-years jail terms, while two others face a year in jail in addition to fines. All of the convicted officials were charged with misuse of government funds meant to aid Afghans journeying to Mecca last year for the Muslim religious pilgrimage known as the hajj. Thousands of Afghans who made the trip late in 2004 said the ministry failed to offer proper assistance to pilgrims. Karzai, who has often complained about government corruption, welcomed the sentencing through a spokesman. "It is an important decision and warning to those who want to misuse and misappropriate their official position," said Karzai spokesman Jawed Ludin. (Marc Ricks)

The Afghan government has issued three new denominations of coin as part of its ongoing effort to bolster the country's currency, AFP reported on 11 April. "It is a source of great pride that today we introduce the one-, two-, and five-afghani coins to the market to meet our people's needs," said Nurullah Delawari, the head of the Afghan central bank. The coins replace banknotes of the same denomination first circulated nearly three years ago. Produced in France, the steel coins are covered with copper, bronze, and stainless steel. When the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001, the afghani was essentially worthless and much of the money used inside Afghanistan at the time came from neighboring countries. In October 2002, the newly seated Afghan government renewed the currency with paper notes; the afghani has since held at 45-50 to the U.S. dollar. (Marc Ricks)

10 April 1923 -- First Afghan Constitution adopted.

11 April 1966 -- "Khalq," a Pashto and Dari newspaper published by Nur Mohammad Taraki, puts out first issue.

11 April 1984 -- The Kabul government orders the expulsion of Third Secretary Richard Vandiver of the U.S. embassy in Kabul on charges of espionage. The United States denies the charge.

Sources: "Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan," Third Edition, by Ludwig W. Adamec, (Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003).